It’s ironic that so soon after the release of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, another title with a very different outlook on war has stealthily marched onto the PlayStation 4. In Sniper Elite III, rather than making you think about the needless loss of life, this latest instalment in the distance shooter series asks that you revel in the gory, slow-motion glory of every rifle shot, shattered skull, splintered bone, and ruptured internal organ, as you cut your way through a legion of soldiers.
Set during the North African campaign of the Second World War, this prequel once again puts you in the boots of top marksman Karl Fairburne. Kicking off during the Siege of Tobruk, the elite sharpshooter helps fend off a German attack and is recruited by British Intelligence, who ask him to investigate reports of a German General working on a mystery weapon that – surprise, surprise – could spell defeat for the Allies.
You may or may not be shocked to hear that the yarn being spun here is paper thin, and inconsequential to the point that it may as well not be there. Even putting aside the tired Nazi super weapon storyline, every single character that you cross paths with has zero personality and is clichéd to the extreme. This is a real achievement, as there are only three characters that have more than a handful of lines throughout the campaign, with Karl himself being the worst by a mile. Talking with a gravelly voice that would make Batman proud, you can’t help but worry that he’s been breathing in too much desert dust while crawling around on the floor. What’s more, he comes across as the kind of guy that when the war ends would have trouble adjusting to normal life, probably ending up climbing a clock tower and picking off civilians once he didn’t have a commanding officer to tell him who to kill.
Throughout the eight campaign missions you’ll visit a variety of locales, ranging from an airfield to a fort that’s being used as a base of operation for German forces. While they’re all visually similar – after all, there’s only so much that can be done with the desert setting – they’re also very open, offering plenty of different routes to your objective. These multiple paths mean that you’re able to experiment quite a bit with different approaches, even in some cases handling objectives in any order that you wish. On top of that, there are also a number of optional missions to complete, offering a challenge for those willing to take the risk of moving deeper into enemy territory.
No matter which path you take, there’s going to be a lot of enemies between you and your target, so it’s lucky that you also have the right tools to take them on, chief of which is your sniper rifle. Your customisable gun enables you to thin the herd of guards from a distance, but since it isn’t silenced, you'll need to be careful, taking advantage of environmental sounds – such as overhead planes – to mask your gunshots.
Taking targets out in this way is worryingly satisfying. The whole process of setting up a shot, masking the sound, and pulling the trigger to eliminate an isolated soldier never gets old. The headline bullet ballistics – even on the normal difficulty – ramp up this satisfaction further, while still remaining intuitive enough for most players to handle. Those masochists looking for an even more authentic experience, however, can turn up the difficulty accordingly, leaving you free to gauge factors such as bullet drop purely by eye.
The controversial x-ray kill camera also returns, triggering whenever you pull off a particularly noteworthy shot. Following your ammunition from the moment that it leaves the barrel, it tracks the projectile's flight in glorious slow motion, right through your target's anatomy. Whether it’s shattering their skull, smashing bones, or piercing organs, these bloody vignettes are extremely graphic, and you can’t help but feel uncomfortable the first few times that you see them – especially if you manage to pull off the now infamous shot to the testicles. While you can dial down the frequency that they appear – even turning them off completely – you may just find that you slowly start to get some morbid satisfaction out of your more gruesome kills, particularly if you’ve executed it from the other side of the map.
Once you’ve cleared some of the patrols out of your way, you can start sneaking towards your objective. Using binoculars, you can tag up to seven enemies at a time, allowing you to track their movements through walls, helping you to avoid them completely. There are times, though, when you’ll need to remove a nearby guard from your path, and in these cases you'll have various options open to you. Whether it’s stabbing them with a knife, shooting them with your silenced pistol, or distracting them by throwing a rock, whichever you choose you’ll need to be constantly aware of not only how visible you are, but also the sound that you’re making. As a result, the best approach is to keep to the shadows moving at a slow pace, hiding the bodies of those you’ve dropped as you go.
Alas, as with any stealth game, there are times when your best laid plans will go awry. Firing too many unmasked shots or getting spotted will result in guards being aware of your rough location, and you’ll be forced to relocate to a new position. Breaking line of sight and moving far enough away from where the guards are searching will eventually cause them to return to their previous patrols. This can be used to your advantage, as you can leave booby traps behind as a present for the unlucky Nazi’s that come looking for you.
All of these tools make causing havoc amongst the fascist ranks lots of fun, and there’s no better feeling than completing your mission unobserved with a trail of destruction left behind you. The only part that you’re unlikely to enjoy, though, is when you have to deal with the armoured vehicles and tanks that crop up in pretty much every mission. These can be destroyed by hitting a weak point with your rifle or by using explosive weapons, but they’re never fun to fight since they will frequently spot you far too easily, and will subsequently cut you down. As a result, most vehicle encounters will result in you observing their patrol route before dropping a land mine for them to drive over the next time that they come around.
This is also a somewhat unpolished experience, and while the graphics are serviceable – moving at a steady 60 frames-per-second – the game has an awful lot of bugs. The enemies act as your usual stealth game fodder, and are quick to raise the alarm, but are just as quick to forget that their friend has just had their head blown off. They also have an uncanny ability to occasionally detect you through walls – and, er, hide inside each other. Indeed, there were several occasions where we snuck up on a guard to stick our knife in them, only to find that there was another Nazi curiously concealed inside the deceased's uniform. We also came across a bug where we’d set up a shot to take out a vehicle, only to have the game crash every time that we pulled the trigger. While these issues won’t ruin your time with the title, they will frustrate – especially when you’ve just spent the last ten minutes setting up for a particular kill.
Once you’re done with the campaign – which can also be played through entirely in co-op – as well as its wave based challenge mode, you can also dive into the competitive multiplayer. This has players taking each other on in a variety of team and solo game types, where sniping from extreme distances is rewarded, and gunning people down up close with a submachine gun barely registers a score. This makes for a very slow and methodical pace to each match, with each participant working their way to a sniping position so that they can lie in wait for opponents who break cover. This is enjoyable when you catch someone poking their head out from behind cover for a second, but can also mean that there are long periods of inactivity as everyone waits for someone to make a mistake.
As in life, patience is also a virtue in Sniper Elite III. Those willing to spend their time slowly crawling into position, waiting for that perfect shot, will find an engaging experience that encourages experimentation through its enormous levels. While the needlessly graphic killcam certainly won’t be to everyone's tastes, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable representation of sniping elsewhere. As a result, even in the face of its general lack of polish, annoying bugs, and laughable story, there’s still enough good stuff here to recommend pulling the purchase trigger.